Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 30 September 2014

This second-rate report has short-changed our retailers

Mary Portas' review of the High Street contains nothing new for Northern Ireland traders, says Donald C McFetridge

After seven months of waiting, the Portas review finally arrived in my in-tray and I opened it in anticipation. I shouldn't have bothered.

It's not unusual to hear moaning and groaning about the state of our High Streets and town centres, but it was disspiriting to read that: "The days of a High Street populated simply by independent butchers, bakers and candlestick-makers are, except in the most exceptional circumstances, over."

My disappointment, however, was not over. I'm well-used to both reading and writing reports which make positive recommendations and seeing nothing happen as a result.

Government departments commission reports and on receipt, appear to simply file them under 'pending' or place them along with all the other reports to gather dust.

On a positive note, the good news is that the Portas review makes 28 recommendations; the sad news is that most of these recommendations have been made in numerous reports over the past 10 years.

There's little here that's new, apart from a recommendation to establish a new National Market Day, which has certainly not pleased any of the retailers to whom I've spoken.

Many retailers are horrified that, while they continue to pay exorbitant prices in order to be able to trade on the High Street, market traders are being encouraged to set up stalls outside their front doors.

I'm probably one of the few who has read the acknowledgements at the end of the report in the hope I would find at least some comfort in a reference to the retailers or retail organisations consulted in Northern Ireland. I needn't have bothered; there are none.

After a careful reading of the review, it strikes me that the research could just as easily have been conducted by a good undergraduate research student during a two-week period of simple desk research.

The case studies are largely anecdotal storytelling, which contain little or no evidence to support the principal findings of the report, which are basically that the days of the High Street are numbered. We already know that expensive town-centre car parking puts customers off; we already know that the rates charged for small, independent retailers often drive them out of business. We are also well-aware of the need for so-called 'town teams'.

Surely Mary Portas is not claiming that her recommendations are original? One would certainly hope not. The author has done little more than chronicle what we already know and has come up with little that is new, or even doable without intervention from central Government.

While it would be wrong to entirely dismiss the review, it will be interesting to read the Government response to it when that's eventually published next year.

It's all very well and good making suggestions and recommendations. It's more difficult to find ways of implementing some of the more sensible ideas, such as removing, or reducing, car parking charges. Local councils claim they need the revenue from this source and I would respectfully suggest that little will be done to sort out this situation in either the short or the long term.

Traders have been calling for action on town centre car parking charges for decades and nothing has happened.

I suspect that many retailers reading the Advice for Shopkeepers will find it both patronising and insulting. To suggest that, "If you bring something different to our High Streets, then the customer will come and find you" is hardly rocket science.

The subtext here is surely to abandon your current retail activities as they're rubbish anyway and start again. Note: the advice is for 'shopkeepers' - not 'retailers'.

Mary Portas ends with the following statement: "Bingo is a brilliant way to bring people together for a bit of old fashioned community fun. Why can't we encourage more bingo nights on our High Streets?"

I rest my case. Anyone for bingo?

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